Listen and Learn

Three years ago, Eric Langhorst, a social studies teacher and department chair at South Valley Junior High in Liberty, MO, had an epiphany. “I had been producing a regular podcast called 'Speaking of History' for teachers and adults that like history,” he recalls. “I might interview a museum curator, talk about a book I had read, or discuss a lesson plan that worked well in my classroom. One day, I realized I could incorporate podcasts into my student’s learning.”

He decided to experiment with the idea and put together a presentation reviewing material for a test. He called it a Study-Cast.

Producing a Study-Cast
Langhorst uses a free audio production software application called Audacity, audacity.sourceforge.net/, to create Study-Casts. He opens the program and speaks into a microphone plugged into the computer. When finished, he names and saves an audio MP3 file.

Audacity also enables Langhorst to import music files and sound effects to enliven the presentation. He can also take clips from interviews with experts and edit them together into a single presentation.

He uploads Study-Casts to the school’s website and puts a link on his Webpage. He also makes the files available on iTunes and the Zune Social Network. iTunes is an Apple system that offers music and video downloads for sale and for free, depending on the material — Study-Casts, of course, are free. The Zune Social Network is Microsoft’s version of iTunes. Students can access both sites by computer, download material to disk, and then upload it to an Apple iPod, a Zune, Microsoft’s MP3 player, or another compatible MP3 player.

For students that don’t have Internet access at home or a portable MP3 player, Langhorst records the study-cast onto a CD.

“It’s a way for students to sit down with me for 20 minutes, review coursework, and get ready for a test,” Langhorst says.

Do students use the materials? “At first it was a novelty,” Langhorst says. “Then halfway through the first year, a Study-Cast link I had set up didn’t work. Parents e-mailed me and asked me to fix the link so they could use the Study-Cast to help their kids get ready for a test.”

Recently, Langhorst took the idea a step further by signing on to a Microsoft pilot program called Zune’s K-12 Education Pilot, which aims to determine how Zune players and other Microsoft technologies might enable students to learn while moving around.

Langhorst selected one of his six American history classes to participate. Microsoft supplied 30 four-gigabyte Zunes, one per student. The devices have three-in. LCD screens and can play video as well as audio.

“I can put audio, video, and image files onto a Zune,” Langhorst says. “I do my presentations in PowerPoint, save them as still images, and load them into the Zunes. I also give students Study-Casts. This is better than uploading material to Websites. When students have their own devices, I can be sure they have the material, but I don’t know whether or not they download anything that I’ve posted.”

Langhorst’s Zune class has also produced video presentations, once creating 60-second campaign commercials for Abraham Lincoln. They used Photo Story 3, a free Microsoft application, to make digitized still pictures into video.
 
Auditory Learners
Sherrie West is a teacher at Fort Sumner high school/middle school in Fort Sumner, NM. She is also the school’s technology director. Not long ago, she had an epiphany similar to Langhorst’s — the podcast concept makes a useful educational tool.

West had won a drawing for an iPod Nano. One day while listening to it, it struck her that she spent a lot of time with the Nano plugged into her ear. “As a teacher, I’m constantly after students to stop listening to audio devices such as cell phones, iPods, and Zunes,” she says. “Now I was doing the same thing.

“Then it occurred to me that students who listen to audio devices all the time were probably good auditory learners. Why not meet them where they are and address this auditory learning modality?”

Just like adults, students are racing to keep up with the hundred-and-one tasks that fill their increasingly busy schedules. And teachers are searching for ways to enable students to study while on the go.

The podcasting concept might be the answer, she reasoned. As an aside, she cautions that what Fort Sumner is doing is technically not podcasting. “A true podcast is delivered through an RSS feed that you subscribe to,” she says. “There are some other technical issues related to podcasting as well. So we call what we create a Fox-Cast — named after the school mascot.”

With a Fox-Cast, students that miss class to participate in activities at other schools could recapture lost time by listening to presentations reviewing coursework while traveling on the bus. Students out sick for a day could download Fox-Casts at home and go over material that they missed. They could listen while jogging, riding in the car, or waiting in a line.

The idea suits Fort Sumner. “We’re a rural school, and it can take hours on a bus to travel to a game or event,” West says. “Students might be out twice a week for these activities. Podcasts could help make up lost time.”

As the school’s technology director, West took her idea up with the administration. Together, they decided to purchase Zunes for every student and teacher in the ninth through the twelfth grade. The small high school has an enrollment of 105 students. Ten teachers handle the teaching load.

West applied for a $45,000 grant through a program called “Enhancing Education through Technology.”  Applications for the federally funded grant program go through New Mexico’s Department of Public Education.

The money would cover the cost of 115 Zunes, at $229 each, providing training for teachers, and also paying them to create 25 Fox-Casts.

“While we waited for a response to the grant application, we shared the idea with a Microsoft contact who was visiting the school in connection with another project,” says West. “She mentioned it at Microsoft and learned that Eric Langhorst at South Valley Junior High in Missouri was setting up a pilot program to test a similar idea. We decided to run a pilot, too.”

Microsoft supplied 25 30-gigabyte Zunes, Microsoft Notebook, PC LifeCams, and home audio-visual accessory packs to Sandy Weirthem, the Spanish teacher selected to run the pilot. An additional 20 Zunes were given to the high school faculty to support their efforts to learn about podcasting.

Weirthem wanted to find out if the Zunes could help Spanish 1 students improve basic vocabulary. Her idea was to become a study partner for students as well as parents trying to help their kids with homework.

She created an audio program in which she pronounced vocabulary words, chapter by chapter, from the textbook. She pronounced each word correctly and then used it in a sentence. Using PowerPoint, she also made up video flash cards to accompany the audio.

Weirthem permits students to take vocabulary tests in writing, but prefers that they do it orally, since the goal is to learn to speak Spanish. Typically, 15 percent of her students agree to the oral test. The rest simply couldn’t pronounce the words correctly and demanded written tests.

Within three months of loading the flash card/audio vocabulary presentation onto Zunes, the percentages reversed themselves. Today, 90 to 95 percent of Spanish 1 students prefer the oral test. Of the results, Weirthem says, “I want the kids to own the language, and I’ve been trying to find ways for them to be comfortable with vocabulary for my entire 26-year career.”

Since the pilot ended, in January, the $45,000 grant came through, and Fort Sumner has purchased Zunes for every high school student and teacher.

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